For all its modern touches – a frank acknowledgment of sex among them – Letter From an Unknown Woman is a 1948 melodrama whose idea of womanhood seems pulled from an even earlier era. It’s a women’s picture that nonetheless turns on male chauvinism.
Is this a problem of Joan Fontaine? Surely director Max Ophuls, working in the American phase of his career, had a more sophisticated understanding of romance than this movie depicts. Fontaine plays Lisa Berndle, a Viennese teen who develops an infatuation with the dashing concert pianist (Louis Jourdan) living in her apartment complex. Though Brand, the pianist, hardly gives her a second glance, she nurses this crush into an obsession as she grows older – even turning down a marriage proposal from a suitor years later while living in another town and returning to Vienna in hopes of reconnecting with Brand.
Eventually Lisa manages a magical night with Brand, which ends with him leaving abruptly to tour Milan and her pregnant (there’s the frankness). That’s enough spoiling of the plot, but those who haven’t seen it should know that we aren’t anywhere near the end of Lisa’s pursuits – or Brand’s casual rejections.
It would be one thing if the picture had us rooting for Lisa’s awakening to independence, but instead we seem meant to root for her to win the (fairly despicable) Brand.
I certainly understand why some find Letter From an Unknown Woman romantic. After all, watching a couple eating microwaved pizza in their cramped apartment would be enchanting if Ophuls filmed it. His swooning camera – its movements meant to match the emotional states of the characters – is put to great effect here, especially when it roams the winding staircase that anchors Lisa and Brand’s shared apartment complex. Early on, when Lisa waits at the top of the stairs until the wee hours of the morning to watch him return with another woman, the camera looks down from her vantage point with an unsure dizziness. Later the shot is matched, only this time Lisa is coming home with Brand, and now the camera performs a slow, elegant swoop, as if ushering in a royal pair.
I also sense that Ophuls – perhaps in an attempt to hedge his bets – is making room for the notion that Lisa’s fixation has as much to do with Brand’s music as the man himself. (It’s worth noting that in the Stefan Zweig novella the movie is based upon, the male character is a novelist.) Lisa is first aware that Brand has moved into the apartments when she hears his music. Later, while spying, she opens the transom above Brand’s door not to see him, but to listen to his song. And while on her dream date, there’s a pointed shot of her kneeling beside him while he plays the piano, her eyes not on his face but his fingers as they play. Perhaps I’m connecting dots that aren’t there, but it seems to me the movie hopes to find something more on which Lisa’s compulsion might hang.
I do wonder about Fontaine, then, who keys into Lisa’s fervent adoration of Brand and never hits another note (perhaps she had learned to value obsession too much from her work with Alfred Hitchcock). Rather than a tragic, unrequited romance, then, Letter From an Unknown woman becomes the tale of willful, feminine subjugation – the sad story of a woman whose entire identity depends on the whims of a callous man.
It would be one thing if the picture had us rooting for Lisa’s awakening to independence, but instead we seem meant to root for her to win the (fairly despicable) Brand. In an unfortunate way, Letter From an Unknown Woman is quite modern. Like so many frustrating “women’s pictures” still churned out by Hollywood, this is another tale ostensibly about a woman that is actually, at heart, all about the man.